Journalist | Writer | Analyst
4 March 2009
Lahore attack shows urgency of joint action on terror
Forget the conspiracies, the threat to Pakistan and India is the same
New Delhi: Pakistanis and Indians looking to make sense of the latest terrorist outrage in South Asia would do well to not seek outlandish explanations for the commando style attack on the Sri Lankan team when simpler ones suffice.
Media commentators in Pakistan have begun speculating that Tuesday’s shocker in Lahore was the handiwork of the Indian Research & Analysis Wing (RAW) out to avenge the November 2008 terrorist attacks on Mumbai. AFP also quoted at least one unnamed “Pakistani security official” as echoing this charge. “Our suspicion is that the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) could be behind it,” he said. “We have seen tit-for-tat attacks in both countries in the 1990s and Lahore could be a reaction to what happened in Mumbai, which India blamed on us,” the official added.
On the other hand, saner elements, including the Lahore police chief and the Punjab governor, have noted obvious similarities between the modus operandi of the Lahore terrorists and the 10 Lashkar-e-Taiba men who struck Mumbai. The supposition is that the same group which masterminded the attack on India’s commercial capital has now targeted Lahore. Or that another group – equipped with similar capabilities, training and even motivation – has copied the Mumbai MO.
Since imitation is not just the sincerest form of flattery but also of incrimination, the last thing the planners of any supposed tit-for-tat Indian attack would do is unleash armed men with backpacks in a crowded metropolis. The hallmark of an intelligence agency black operation is deniability. The fortuitous arrest of Ajmal ‘Kasab’ – who was supposed to die fighting — helped India unravel the full extent of the Mumbai conspiracy. Against this backdrop, staging an attack with 12 assailants and “Indian” ordnance (as some Pakistani channels are speculating) would be an act of such foolishness that it is absurd to think RAW would involve itself in such a risky venture. That it would want to do so at a time when Islamabad is conceding the validity of Indian claims about the involvement of Pakistani nationals in the Mumbai conspiracy simply defies reason.
But if the theory of Indian involvement in Lahore is ridiculous, the Indian side needs to ask what Tuesday’s copycat attack reveals about the wider motivation and affiliation of the Mumbai attackers. The Mumbai incident was aimed at India, the India-Pakistan peace process and also the civilian government in Pakistan. Lahore is clearly targeted at the third objective, and can be seen, more generally, as an outgrowth of the steady inroads terrorist organizations have made in the heartland of the country. Emboldened by Islamabad’s capitulation to the Tehreek-e-Nafaaz-e-Shariati-Mohammadi and the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan in Swat, as well as the in-fighting within the secular parties, the jihadi groups are upping the ante. Cricket is the most visible icon of secular Pakistan, and perhaps the only competitor militant Islam faces in its struggle to tame the ‘wayward’ Pakistani mind. The intended target for the attack could well have been the Pakistani team itself, though attacking the Sri Lankan guests serves the additional goal of ensuring the demise of international cricket in the country.
Though the Mumbai chargesheet is silent on this, Indian officials have spoken on and off the record about their belief that sections of the Pakistani establishment were complicit in the November 26-29 attacks. If this is true, and if the same group is also involved in Lahore, one needs to ask what exactly these sections are trying to achieve. If the aim is merely to destabilize the government of Asif Ali Zardari and Yusuf Raza Gilani, the Pakistani president and prime minister seem to be doing a wonderful job all by themselves. Given the current political turmoil within the civilian sector, the military will have ample opportunity to intervene. At any rate, it has no need to artificially accelerate the process.
A more plausible explanation could be that the complicity of these sections of the Pakistani establishment is of an implicit rather than explicit variety. Incidents like Mumbai or Lahore are not actively planned, but they occur nevertheless because the establishment does not wish decisively to act against the infrastructure of terror it helped create over the past two decades. The establishment knows some of these groups have turned inward, against their erstwhile masters, but thinks the damage they inflict can be contained. The conductor still believes he is conducting the orchestra, even though the hall is already filled with cacophony. The Swat capitulation was aimed at keeping the jihadi organisations alive because they might yet serve a purpose as force multipliers should the situation in Afghanistan change. But it was also a naive attempt to erect a temporary firewall around the heartland of Punjab, a strategy that had failed even before it was tried.
In his interrogation, Ajmal ‘Kasab’ had spoken of how the 10 men who were chosen for the Mumbai operation were part of an original group of 35 who had received similar training in urban warfare and the use of firearms. If Pakistani officials are truly concerned about the security of their country, they ought to be trying to track down the remaining 25 extremists on an urgent basis. Perhaps some of them saw action in Lahore on Tuesday. Or will be deployed against soft targets elsewhere in Pakistan or India. After Lahore, there can be no excuse for Pakistan living in denial. The enemy lies within and it has to be destroyed, root and branch.
As for India, Lahore demonstrates that the picture across the border is even more complex and dangerous than first imagined. Pakistan is to India today what Swat is to the rest of Pakistan, an unsettled, unstable buffer. And time may well be running out. In its latest report, the Atlantic Council, a U.S. think-tank, says Islamabad “has 6-12 months to put in place and implement security and economic policies or face the very real prospect of considerable domestic and political turbulence”. The kind of threat terrorism poses requires a joint effort by both India and Pakistan, and not the reiteration of meaningless phrases like “all options are open”. Finding ways to encourage Pakistani cooperation and, more generally, to stabilize that country, are the most important challenges facing Indian diplomacy.